Groundwork: Parents feel cut off, one school reconnects with outdoor classroom

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This pandemic is full of loss. For some parents, that includes feeling cut off from their children’s education as they face closed school doors and a ban on volunteers in the classroom.

That’s one of several sobering themes coming out of Groundwork, the Edmonton Journal’s new engagement project currently listening to parent, teacher and other community voices on schools and COVID-19.

It’s also why the Mount Royal School’s newly-constructed outdoor classroom stands out as such a heart-warming success.

Every morning, in drizzle or sunshine, kindergarten students gather in a small corner of the east-end public elementary school. Fairy toadstools and rainbow art spark imagination; large logs allow a teacher to gather the kids to read, and a new fence adds structure.

It was built in partnership with the local parents association and school council, which, unlike many other councils, moved online and doubled attendance when the lockdown hit.


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Kristine Edgington, then chair of the school council, remembers feeling weepy and discouraged as she watched her youngest disappear into the school without her on the first day of school. Then she pulled out of the parking lot, turned the corner and saw all the kindergarten parents, waving and taking pictures of their kids from the sidewalk. The teacher was reading a story in full view.

It was a loss restored, even in the midst of the pandemic.

“It’s so hard not to go inside,” Edgington said. “What a beautiful thing (the teacher) made happen.”

Edgington shared the anecdote during the Groundwork consultations last week, then agreed to share it publicly. Nearly 140 parents, teachers and education specialists filled out the Edmonton Journal survey. Eleven people joined to talk in-depth about the challenges through our virtual office hours, and several others sent in tips and comments by email.

They talked about how they miss volunteering around the school and informal connection that fostered. They miss popping in to ask questions at the office. One had questions about health protocol and in response, a principal sent out a link to the Alberta Health Services page. It’s just not enough, the parent said. Parents need language they can understand and a relationship.

Other participants raised the issue of support for special needs children, worried the pandemic is only exacerbating the impact of provincial cuts. Still others believe Alberta’s isolation requirements for children are too broad and those stuck at home could be left behind. Or they worry about the impact of health protocol on children’s ability to learn, or worry that those protocol aren’t keeping children safe enough. Many worry for stressed teachers.


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The questions raised will shape our coverage plans. Answering them will take investigative journalism and many more interviews. Watch for this in the weeks to come, and feel free to continue sharing your perspective at

Meanwhile, I wanted to share Mount Royal’s success because we need a little good news.

Stephanie Johnson, the kindergarten teacher, said the outdoor classroom has been important for literacy. “So that I can have my mask off as well and they can see my mouth. (When I’m teaching letter sounds), being able to see the shape my mouth is in is really important.”

It also helps with concentration and group work, both of which are significant concerns. COVID-19 health protocol is forcing students to stay in their desks, which is hard for kids who need to move periodically to concentrate. Older classes use this outdoor classroom in the afternoon, especially since the parent group bought 60 portable lap desks and a clipboard for each child.

Being outdoors “is really the safest way to have that movement,” said principal Mary Ann Dobson. She’ll be working with parents at the next council meeting to brainstorm how to continue during the winter, perhaps by changing the annual parents winter clothing swap so it’s COVID-19 compliant.

The Alberta School Council’s Association says many parent advisory groups are now moving online; they’re offering workshops to help.

That relationship with parents can’t be taken for granted, Dobson said. “It’s a pretty special community to belong to.”

Elise Stolte is a columnist and engagement journalist with the Edmonton Journal.


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